Handmaids to Neoliberalism: “The Handmaid’s Tale’s” Fantasy of the Apolitical

Still from “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Last year, when Hulu’s version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale appeared, some viewers noticed that its attempts to be postracial had yielded a troubling denial of the links between right-wing Christian ideas about race and about women’s reproductive role.  With the second season, we can expect further obscuring of the religious right’s hostility to environmentalism.

Speculative fiction at its best extends current tendencies into the future to show us something about our present.  But the atomized landscape of neoliberal culture denies real relations of power.  After all, there are very fine people on all sides.

Atwood’s 1985 novel was extrapolating from the alliance between the religious right and anti-porn feminists. The book describes a near-future American theocracy in which environmental pollution has led to widespread infertility. The patriarchal regime that takes over portions of the United States and renames it Gilead imposes a totalizing system that dictates clothing, ritual, and family structure: the few women who are still fertile are assigned as ‘Handmaids’  to the families of powerful Commanders.  But only white women become handmaids.

Some critics have faulted the novel for this.  The book gets some of its frisson from imposing on white women some of the oppressions imposed on enslaved Black women in the antebellum South and the tropes and imagery of US chattel slavery:  Women in Gilead are forbidden to read, write, or congregate. They are treated as property, valued for their reproductive capacity, and named for their owners—the central character is called Offred because her commander is named Fred.  Those escaping to Canada are helped by a secret network known as the Underground Femaleroad, and many of their allies are Quakers. Offred’s narrative, like many 19th century slave narratives, originates in oral form.

But while Atwood’s novel thus arguably obscures the intersections of racism and sexism by silently transposing to a white woman some of the situation of African American women under slavery, the book does acknowledge the racism of Gilead.  The excuse for the imposition of martial law that leads to the Gilead takeover is a supposed threat of Islamic terrorism. African Americans are reportedly relocated to apartheid-style  “homelands” in the Midwest.  In the far-future epilogue, an historian looking back at Gilead notes that the regime’s “racist policies … were firmly rooted in the pre-Gilead period, and racist fears provided some of the emotional fuel that allowed the Gilead takeover to succeed as well as it did.”

For the Hulu series, however, executive producer Bruce Miller decided to cut out the white supremacist ideology of the Republic of Gilead, saying that he “made the decision that fertility trumped everything.”  Thus, we are treated to the fabulous Samira Wiley as Offred’s friend Moira, and a few other brown faces in the cast.

But of course concerns over the birthrate and population have generally been about whose fertility is rising or falling, and about the fear of being overrun by someone else’s babies. The religious right got early traction as a political movement not by trying to stop abortions but by trying to stop racial integration. White supremacist groups worry that interracial marriage constitutes “white genocide” because it taints Aryan purity. Stormfront and similar sites fret about whites being outbred by non-whites, and the “Quiverfull” movement encourages Christian white women to breed incessantly.

But the show’s pretense of a post-racial Gilead fails on its own terms. As Ambereen Dadabhoy asks, “If this were truly a world devoid of white supremacy, would all of the wives of the commanders be icy blondes or pale gingers? We have only to look at the ruling elites to know that this is a mere fiction or palliative for those of us who demand some form of diversity from the entertainment we consume.”    Similarly, Jane Hu asks in the LA Review of Books, “where are all the Asian handmaids? Given the show’s rhetoric of concubines and its reflection on outsourced female labor and reproductive carework, postracial America is strangely devoid of any Asian women.”

In trying to rationalize the series’ casting choices, producer Miller asks,  “What’s the difference between making a TV show about racists and making a racist TV show? Why would we be covering  [the story of handmaid Offred…], rather than telling the story of the people of color who got sent off to [the Midwest]?”    But surely there is potentially a great deal of difference between making a TV show about racists and making a racist TV show, and the possibility that Miller presents this as a rhetorical question should cause concern.   In the terms Miller tries to set up, there is indeed no good reason that Offred herself need be played by a white woman.  Moreover, since we’ve begun to see the series develop scenes and characters not followed in the novel, there is no good reason we would not follow those who were exiled to some homeland.  In short, the series supports white supremacy by denying its continuing significance.

Further, near the end of the first season, we hear members of the Commander class asserting how well the regime is doing at cleaning up the environment and getting off fossil fuels.  If this is not simply Gilead propaganda, it’s another denial of the real alliances made by the religious right.  The Papist position notwithstanding, the dominionist theology of the Cornwall Alliance and its allies suggests that the environmental movement is an unmitigated evil, a demonic “Green Dragon” that “threatens the sanctity of life.” Humans have “dominion” over the planet, according to their reading of Genesis 1:28,  and any government action to protect the health of the common environment violates God’s plan.

Last year, Splinter Newspublished a report on “How Fossil Fuel Money Made Climate Change Denial the Word of God.”  In it, Brendan O’Connor traces the myriad connections among anti-regulation evangelicals like the Cornwall Alliance, right-wing foundations like Heritage and Heartland, various dark-money funds like Donors Trust, the usual billionaires like the Koch, Mercer, and DeVos families, and Republican legislators and appointees.  Although there is evidently a debate within Christian groups, word earlier this year is that   “Christianity Is Not Getting Greener: U.S. Christians’ concerns about the environment have not shifted much in the past two decades.”

The producers of the Hulu Handmaid’s Tale need not be willfully complicit in these obfuscations.  But by imagining a world that detaches race and gender, theocracy and capital, the series tells us less than it might about our current society. We’ll see what season two holds.  But I’m looking forward to the series based on Atwood’s more recent speculative fiction MaddAddam(2013), a book that includes the Church of PetrOleum, “affiliated with the somewhat more mainstream Petrobaptists.”

Frann Michel teaches English and Cinema Studies at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.